The coronavirus sweeping across the world is a pandemic, the World Health Organization declared today. There are now over 118,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in 114 countries around the world.
The WHO continues to closely monitoring spread of the virus, said Tedros Adhanom, director general of the WHO, during the announcement. “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” he said. “We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action.”
There are large outbreaks of the virus in Italy, South Korea, and the United States. In the US, the slow rollout of testing and limited testing capacity has crippled response to the disease.
The spread of the virus can still be controlled, Adhanom said. He pointed to both China and South Korea, where outbreaks appear to be declining. “It’s doable.”
A pandemic is the “worldwide spread of a new disease,” according to the WHO. There’s no cut-and-dry criteria for what reaches the level of pandemic and what does not, and there is no threshold of cases or deaths that triggers the definition.
The WHO classified the novel coronavirus as a global public health emergency on January 30th. Until now, they’ve been reluctant to call the outbreak a pandemic over concerns that it would incite unnecessary panic, though they’d been warning countries to prepare for a pandemic. “Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear,” Adhanom said at a press briefing at the end of February. “What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world affecting different countries in different ways.”
Countries around the world, including in the US, have already been leaning on pandemic preparedness plans to respond to outbreaks of the new coronavirus.
The last time the WHO declared a pandemic was during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, which infected nearly a quarter of the world’s population. However, that decision was criticized for creating unnecessary panic. SARS was not considered a pandemic, despite affecting people in 26 countries, and neither was MERS.